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The so-called ‘death of the High Street’ receives an enormous amount of attention. Research by Professor Jonathan Reynolds at the Oxford Institute of Retail Management shows that this may be a myth and aims to help both businesses and governments to respond to pressures and be resourceful.

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Journalists are fond of announcing ‘the death of the High Street’, but research at the Oxford Institute of Retail Management shows it’s not dying at all – it’s simply reinventing itself.

Headlines tend to focus on the negative features of change, such as the collapse of BHS, and like to blame the supposed decline of city centres on retail parks and online shopping. But research led by Professor Jonathan Reynolds challenges this gloomy view. Using two years’ data from over 150,000 retail outlets across 1,300 urban centres, he has analysed what’s really happening on the UK’s High Streets. The reality is more complicated – and positive – than the headlines suggest.

It’s certainly true that some sectors have taken a big hit. Over 500 fashion outlets disappeared between 2011 and 2013 in the centres Professor Reynolds studied, and shops selling products that have can now be downloaded (music, books and film) lost over 1000 outlets. But the independent sector has fared better: the number of independent retailers actually grew slightly between 2011 and 2013, and in centres like Brixton they dominate and are thriving.

In the same two year period, not counting chains like Costa and Prêt, over 800 new independent food and drink retailers appeared on the High Street, reflecting the transformation of ‘shopping’ into a leisure activity that incorporates eating, drinking and entertainment. Health and beauty businesses which provide a service that can’t be obtained online have also done well, increasing by over 10% between 2011 and 2013; there are now more nail bars on British High Streets than Chinese restaurants.

Research like this is crucial for urban planning and policy. It tells us that town centres, especially the smaller ones, need to be diverse and versatile in order to succeed. But it also shows that, despite enormous pressures, our High Streets are continuing to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of the people who use them.

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